Vernon fancies this New Age elfin-faced French woman who owns and runs a restaurant. She’s hardworking, she’s a reader, and she has a great library, he says. He would chuck his Stetson into the ring, he says, but every now and again she comes out with some bonkers New Age or woke statement that makes him lose confidence in her intelligence.
Vernon doesn’t oppose New Age or woke thinking because he is on the right. (He is at heart a socialist.) He opposes it because he thinks it is shockingly unintelligent. ‘Man,’ he says. ‘If you saw her library, you’d think here is one bright lady.’
I understand his dilemma, I tell Vernon, but why talk? Against this Vernon argues that he has arrived at a stage in his life where he values companionship and intelligent conversation more than he does sex. But who knows, he says. Maybe if he went along for the ride she might convince him that the unintelligent position on woke and New Age ideas was in fact his skepticism. Which proves what an open-minded sort of fellow Vernon is. The other day he rang me up. ‘How about rounding up them dogies for lunch at her restaurant tomorrow?’ he said. ‘She works hard on her chow but business ain’t a-happenin’. A table for six hungry cowpokes just in from the dusty trail would brighten up her day.’
COVID regulations have been relaxed here in France for two weeks. I’ve eaten out three times since and already the novelty has worn off. I can think of other things I would rather be doing than sitting at a restaurant table talking twaddle. Like talking to my tomatoes. Like trying to copy some of Mick’s great harp licks from early Stones stuff. Like sleeping. I’m peculiar like that. When I was small my father would sweep off the tablecloth at the slightest breach of table manners. As a result I’m slightly phobic. Eating out once a week I can cheerfully manage. Twice, I start complaining. But because Vernon’s suggestion was in a good cause I rounded up them dogies via WhatsApp. At noon the next day Vernon, Catriona, three others and I were shown to a table shaded by a taut canvas awning on a seedy but admittedly pleasant early 19th-century square with mature plane trees and trickling fountain. The apple of Vernon’s eye was inside singing incantations over a hot stove and our orders were taken by her willowy student daughter. The menu du jour was Indian food. There were two other diners.
‘South Indian?’ enquired our food expert, Michael, knowledgeably. Catriona asked if anything on the menu contained eggs in any shape or form because she is allergic to them. The answer was a fairly definite no. Already on the table were three little appetizer bowls of what Michael identified as fried and spiced cauliflower florets. These we carefully speared with our cocktail sticks while settling down with a bottle of pink. The midday sun beat down on the worn paving stones but beneath the awning was pleasantly cool.
The starter was a dish of vegetables mixed with chopped-up tropical fruit. I shoveled it down taking little or no notice of the myriad flavors because I was hungry. The conversation at this point, I remember, was about human progress. Everyone present expressed agreement with the view that we were living at the dawn of a bright new age of peace, justice, equality, technology and prosperity. Even Vernon! I should have spoken out but didn’t know where to begin and couldn’t be arsed. I looked at the floor tongue-tied and oddly furious and vowed never to eat out again.
Moments later I noticed that Catriona beside me was slumped over her plate with her face in her hands. Was she also disillusioned by this shibboleth of human progress? Unlikely. Catriona is an optimist. Had Vernon perhaps made one of his controversial redneck asides?
No. Apparently she was suddenly very ill.
She couldn’t move or speak or hold up her head. Because she couldn’t speak she couldn’t enlighten us about what was wrong exactly. We dabbed ice on her forehead and neck and supported her head above her plate and after 20 minutes she returned gradually, and very shaken, to her senses.
(She’d done a double online workout earlier that morning and when she saw a doctor the following day, the doctor thought she’d probably had an ‘exercise-induced allergic anaphylaxis’. Catriona was fortunate the seizure hadn’t progressed to cardiac arrest, she said.)
After the meal we had coffee, then paid and as we rose everyone said what a lovely, lovely meal it had been and how enjoyable and we must all come again. Not me. I’m off up to the old front line of the Somme battlefield on Wednesday with the foreign correspondent. For a week at least I’m done with restaurant tables and talk of human progress.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s September 2021 World edition.